I spent the day working with 24 kids at a local non-profit. It was noisy and sweaty and warm. At one point during the day, a 5-year old boy plopped down on the floor and fell back, looking up at the ceiling. His brow furrowed, and tears started to well up in his eyes. I asked him if everything was ok. He shouted, “no!” So, I got down on the floor beside him and asked him what had happened. He sat up and then turned away from me and grunted. I asked him if he wanted me to leave him alone for a bit. Again he shouted, “no!” I then asked, “Do you want me to just sit here with you?” A tear ran down his cheek, he pulled his hoodie up over his head, and he nodded.
For a moment, the noise of the other 23 kids was gone, and it was just me and this kid sitting on the floor in our own little world. We didn’t talk or look at each other. We just sat there. After a few minutes, he looked at me and said, “I can’t remember where my chair is.” I smiled and said, “It’s pretty crazy in here today, huh?” He nodded. “I’m not sure where my chair is either, but I will help you find yours if you want me to.” He just smiled and said, “ok!”
This experience reminded me of a moment I shared with my daughter. She had open-heart surgery and was in bed for two days before sitting up and attempting to walk. Walking was one of the things she had to do to leave the hospital, so her physical therapist and surgeon were pushing her to try. She was in pain, and a giant bandage covered her torso. She still had tubes poking out of her tiny hands and oxygen to help her breathe. A monitor was closely recording every beat of her tiny heart. They brought in an x-ray machine to regularly take pictures of her chest, and they were constantly poking her for blood samples. She was on the third day without food. She was tired. She was scared. She didn’t want to move or talk. In the evening, during a rare moment when no one was in her hospital room, she looked at me and said, “Mommy, can you help me sit up?” “Of course, honey,” I said as I slowly slipped my arms under her to gently lift her body. She told me to back up and sit on the sofa in her room. She inched herself to the edge of the bed and slowly dropped her feet to the floor. These would be her first steps with a repaired heart, a moment more memorable to me than the first time she walked. As she did when she was a toddler, she reached out to me and held my hands, and took the three steps towards me. Then she lowered down to sit beside me. She was exhausted. It took all the energy she had to make those few small steps. She sat beside me and just leaned on me. She didn’t say a word. We didn’t look at each other. We just sat there for a moment in silence, blocking out the constant beeping of the machines. We got through the hard part, and she just needed to know that I would always be there for her to lean on.
These two situations, one with a kid I barely knew and one with a kid I birthed, were so critical. Neither of these kids needed me to say anything. Neither of these kids needed me to do anything significant. I didn’t need to solve their problems or give them anything. They just needed me to be there in the space where they were. They just needed to know that, even for just a moment, they were not alone.
When my dad died, people sent me flowers, cards, books about grief, messages, and shared stories of people they had lost. It was all well-intentioned and precisely what we all do when someone we know loses a loved one. It’s been almost ten years since I lost my dad, and of all those people, one sticks out the most in my memory. Despite not seeing each other for eight years, my friend took a train from New York to see me the night of the funeral. She didn’t come to the funeral or the burial. She didn’t come to the viewing or dinner after the funeral. She just invited me to meet her at her hotel after everything was over. After a day full of talking and crying and watching them lower my father’s body into the ground, I met her at the hotel. She didn’t give me anything. She didn’t say anything. She just sat with me in that space, so I knew I wasn’t alone. It was exactly what I needed, and I didn’t even know it. For the first time in a long time, I felt safe and loved, and I knew everything would be ok.
Life is tough. Things are more challenging than usual for all of us right now, and we need each other more than ever. We often see people hurting so bad that we don’t know how to help them or what to say to them. The thing is that we are human and, unless we have a total lack of empathy, we feel compelled to help somehow. More often than not, we either say something, send something, or we don’t do anything at all because we don’t know what to do. We just look the other way because we are so scared of doing the wrong thing. I am guilty of this myself. As humans, we are meant to be connected. We are not designed to be alone. When one of us is hurting, we aren’t required to solve their problems. They don’t need our grand gestures or fancy words. They just need us to show up.
“We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” ~Neil deGrasse Tyson